In December 2019, less than a minute after the news release announced Pam Marrone’s plans to retire as CEO from Marrone Bio Innovations in Davis, her phone rang. It was Roger Tripathi, CEO of Primary BioAg Innovations and Global BioAg Linkages. He wanted Marrone — a pioneer in the industry of biological-based, nonchemical products to control agricultural pests and promote plant health — to work for the two companies he founded in 2019.
After 30 years as a CEO of bio-ag companies, Marrone, 64, was ready for a change. Leading a public company since 2013 — with quarterly reportings and strict regulations — had become a grind, and she knew she could have a bigger impact on more entrepreneurs by advising startups. “It’s really difficult to scale a company in this industry. Really hard. And I think my legacy is I’ve done it twice,” says Marrone who founded MBI as well as AgraQuest, an agricultural research company.
Marrone’s passion began in childhood when she spent “nearly every waking hour” studying and identifying the insects at her family’s pond in Killingworth, Connecticut. Around the age of 10, her mother wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on her behalf inquiring about careers in entomology. When she read the “grainy black-and-white brochure” the USDA sent back about integrated pest management, she knew what she wanted to do. “It was looking at how you control pests in a totally different way and not just slamming them with chemicals,” says Marrone. “What most people have known me for is that all the things I’ve done have dramatically changed the perception of biological and nonchemical products for agriculture. And without what I have done, the industry wouldn’t be where it is,” she says, noting the shift from a “snake oil” image to a science-based, reputable industry that is going mainstream.
It took nearly eight months for MBI to find Marrone’s successor. On Aug. 2, 2020, Marrone formally retired and headed out on a one-week vacation with her husband, Mick Rogers, to Westport-
Union Landing State Beach in Mendocino County. While on vacation, it was announced Marrone would join Tripathi as partner and chair of the board of both of his Utah-based companies, mentoring the innovation stream at Primary BioAg Innovations and serving as managing director for mergers, acquisitions and fundraising at Global BioAg Linkages. That’s when “all the calls and emails and LinkedIn (messages) came in, so I didn’t have much of a vacation,” she says.
“What most people have known me for is that all the things I’ve done have dramatically changed the perception of biological and nonchemical products for agriculture. And without what I have done, the industry wouldn’t be where it is.”
“What I really like about it is we’re getting companies with very different technologies than Marrone Bio,” Marrone says. For example, she’s working with a startup in Alabama that processes manure with insects. The insects digest the manure and their feces, called frass, is harvested and used as an organic fertilizer, which has a lot of potential, she says. While there’s significant venture capital investment in the explosion of technology and startups in the bio-ag sector, bringing products to market is extremely challenging, explains Marrone. “We don’t want anymore failures … so we’re helping with go-to market strategies.”
Marrone works 10-12 hour days advising global companies for Primary BioAg Innovations and Global BioAg Linkages in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the U.S. She’s also advising startups through her private holding company, Chestnut Bio Advisors (“marrone” means chestnut in Italian), which she launched in August 2020, in the fields of artificial intelligence and bio-imaging technology, soil health using nematode pheromones, and consumer lawn and garden. Marrone is also a board member of StemExpress and Marrone Bio, and interim CEO of The Redmelon Company, a startup in Davis that uses technology to produce health products from the gac fruit.
“I’m able to apply my business skills and my experience beyond just ag-bio inputs,” she says, “so that’s really satisfying to be able to help a broader range of entrepreneurs.”
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